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Money Woes Hamper Efforts to Fix Transportation Infrastructure

Author: Chuck Crumbo

Source: GSA Business

March 18, 2013

Although agreeing South Carolina needs to fix and upgrade its transportation infrastructure, two state senators indicated Thursday that finding enough cash will be a challenge for the Legislature.

South Carolina is facing a $29 billion funding shortfall over the next 20 years to repair roads, replace bridges and invest in mass transit and rail transportation, according to a state Transportation Department study.

“For so many issues that come before us of great and momentous portent, there’s nothing bigger facing South Carolina than a $29 billion infrastructure need,” Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Greenville, said during a legislative panel session at the third annual S.C. Transportation, Distribution and Logistics Summit.

Funding infrastructure is a core function of state government, said Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg. However, if more money is going to be spent on transportation, it will have to be taken from somewhere else in the state budget like funding for education or health care, he added.

“The state is not to raise people’s babies for them. It’s not for day care. It’s not to feed people. It’s not to clothe people. It’s not to house people,” Bright said. “It’s absolutely abhorrent that we are not able to fund our roads.”

Finding money to fix the state’s highway and bridges, and widening key sections of Interstate 26, which connects the Port of Charleston with the state’s manufacturing center in the Upstate, is a top issue of S.C. business leaders.

Economic development is picking up steam across the state, said Otis Rawl, CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Also, Rawl noted, the timetable for dredging the Charleston Harbor to accommodate post-Panamax ships that will be calling on the state’s port has been moved up to 2017 from 2022.

“We have all these issues staring us in the face,” Rawl said, noting expansion of the port could mean more jobs for South Carolinians. “We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get it right and we’ve got to get it right in a short amount of time.”

Some additional money for transportation infrastructure is included in the House of Representatives $6.3 billion spending plan, which was passed earlier this week. Part of that budget includes shifting about $82 million a year from the general fund to the transportation fund.

While an improvement, the extra money is well short of the estimated average of $1.5 billion the state will need each of the next 20 years to make up for the funding shortfall.

“People have told me that if I get $80 million it’s like a raindrop falling into Lake Murray,” Robert St. Onge, S.C. Secretary of Transportation, said during another panel session. “I’ll take it.”

Verdin did say he was “favorably disposed” to a proposal by fellow Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, that the state float a $500 million bond issue to help cover transportation costs.

Neither Verdin nor Bright favored raising the state gas tax, which is the primary funding source for the Transportation Department.

The state’s fuel tax of 16.75 cents per gallon is the fourth-lowest in the nation and proceeds have been relatively flat in recent years because of the Great Recession and the fact that cars and trucks are getting better gas mileage. It’s estimated that increasing the gas tax by one penny would raise $32 million a year.

Both senators, though, said they would be open to diversifying highway revenue sources, such as charging tolls to pay for new roads or assessing user fees.

“In my part of the world there is a lot of public concern about spending 8, 9 or 10 or more cents at the pump and building an interstate from Detroit to Myrtle Beach or finishing 10-12 miles of whatever it is across John and James islands,” Verdin said. “I’m trying to maintain an open mind.”

Bright said he supported efforts to fix and upgrade the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“I’m with you 100%, it’s just how you do it,” Bright said.

The summit was hosted by New Carolina’s TDL Council, which is a public-private collaborative among leaders in the transportation, distribution and logistics sectors that promote South Carolina, create jobs and attract investment.

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